Olmert-Peretz deal won't stop Katsav consultations

Steinitz: Likud may join coalition if withdrawals are delayed for years.

Although it was a foregone conclusion on Tuesday morning that President Moshe Katsav would designate Kadima chairman Ehud Olmert to form the next coalition government, he continued to consult with party factions, as the law demands. Katsav met with delegations from Hadash, Balad, Likud, the United Arab List and Shas. The Likud delegation was the only one that brought up the name of someone other than Olmert or Labor leader Amir Peretz as a person worthy of being prime minister. However, even as Likud advocated its leader Binyamin Netanyahu as the most competent candidate, the party realized that in light of election results he was not a viable candidate. Although Olmert has invited Netanyahu to join the coalition, Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar was doubtful as to whether Netanyahu would accept. Likud will meet before the end of the week to hammer out the pros and cons of joining, but delegation members suggested that it was unlikely that their party would join the coalition if Olmert continued to pursue a policy of further unilateral withdrawal from the territories. The implementation of this policy will endanger national security and further delay any chances for peace, said Sa'ar. "This time we've decided to serve the nation as members of the opposition," said MK Yuval Steinitz, who pledged that Likud would be "a responsible, active and effective opposition." Steinitz did not unequivocally rule out the possibility of Likud joining the coalition. If Kadima is willing to delay the unilateral withdrawal plan not by weeks or months, but years, he added, there might be a chance. Both MKs Gilad Erdan and Moshe Kahlon elaborated on the theory that the election results did not necessarily indicate that the majority of the public was in favor of unilateral withdrawal. For example, "We don't see the seven Gil mandates as expressing support for withdrawal," said Kahlon. Rather, the Gil's campaign platform was based purely on pensioners' issues, he said. Asked whether Likud would join the coalition if the agreement stipulates that any final decision to cede land to the Palestinian Authority would have be put to a referendum, Sa'ar replied that Likud did not want to compromise its own policy. The Likud's campaign platform was completely opposed to withdrawal. To join a government with a withdrawal policy, explained Sa'ar, would signify acceptance, and thereby break faith with those people who had voted Likud.